On Sunday, visitors to the British Museum were met with a 36-foot-tall banner visualizing the 2,727 oil spills caused in one region during one year by Rosneft, the state-controlled Russian energy giant in which BP, a highly visible sponsor of the museum, has a major stake. The activists who unfurled the banner, members of the activist collective BP Or Not BP?, also dropped more than 2,000 pieces of confetti shaped like drops of oil into the Great Court, each one symbolizing a spill by the BP affiliate in Russia.
The performative protest marked the closing of the BP-sponsored exhibition Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia and was intended in part to call attention to a trove of documents made public the following day by Culture Unstained, a group lobbying to end the fossil fuel industry’s sponsorship of cultural events and institutions. The extensive “Crude Connections” dossier includes an interactive graphic and a timeline of meetings and email correspondence between British and Russian officials, and representatives of BP, the British Museum, and the State Hermitage Museum. It sheds some light on opaque dealings between politicians and energy company executives, and cultural sponsorship’s role in facilitating and legitimizing those activities.
“We’ve seen BP use previous British Museum exhibitions as opportunities to cozy up to repressive regimes in countries where it wants to drill, such as Mexico and Egypt,” Helen Glynn of BP Or Not BP? told Hyperallergic. “This time, BP’s purpose seems to be subtly different — its sponsorship of the Scythians exhibition fits into a wider strategy of trying to rehabilitate the Russian government in the eyes of Western policymakers, in an effort to weaken the sanctions that prevent BP from getting its drills into the Russian Arctic. When the Russian Ambassador and BP are given places of honor at a British Museum event, that sends a strong signal to the British establishment — that there’s nothing wrong with BP working with the Russian government.”
The email correspondence Culture Unstained obtained through Freedom of Information requests includes, for instance, a public affairs manager at the British Museum arranging a private meeting in May 2017 between Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to the UK, two unnamed BP employees, and the British Museum’s director (Hartwig Fischer) and chair of trustees (Richard Lambert) the morning of the press launch of Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia. A follow-up email from the Russian embassy described the meeting as “very useful and positive.”
At the exhibition’s official opening in September 2017, Yakovenko made a speech praising, among others, BP. “I’m hugely grateful to the Hermitage and other museums from Kazakhstan and UK that contributed to it,” he said, “the British Museum that brought it to life with great storytelling, and, of course, the BP that has such a remarkable record of supporting cultural and scientific ties between our two nations.”
Though the documents gathered by Culture Unstained don’t include any specifically illegal activities, they do suggest a pattern of BP’s cultural sponsorship serving as a pretext to bring together government officials and agents of the energy industry. The correspondence in the “Crude Connections” dossier is all the more interesting because the British Museum’s Scythians exhibition coincided with the period when the US Senate imposed new sanctions on Russia, and the trove of emails shows the lengths to which BP and British and Russian officials went to respond to and lobby against the sanctions.
In short, the documents offer glimpses of a network of influence usually concealed from the public, and in which the British Museum plays a not insignificant role. To help make that network more easily intelligible, “Crude Connections” also includes a very extensive infographic mapping the many connections between BP and Rosneft, the British and Russian governments, and cultural institutions including the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and London’s Science Museum.
“Institutions like the British Museum are supposed to be accountable to the public via their trustees,” Glynn said. “We’d love it if more people contacted the British Museum’s Board of Trustees to ask: what scrutiny was carried out before signing this new five-year BP deal? Were the trustees aware that a third of BP’s business and a quarter of its profits are tied up with the notoriously polluting Russian state oil company Rosneft — a company currently embroiled in a major corruption scandal? If so, then why on earth did they sign off on this deal, at a time when there is so much international concern about the activities of the Russian government?”
BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, and has been the subject of many protest performances. Though BP ended its sponsorship agreement with Tate in 2016 following public pressure and protests by groups like Liberate Tate, it renewed a similar deal with the British Museum that same year, which will carry through to 2021.
Explore the “Crude Connections” dossier at Culture Unstained.